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How the Boston archdiocese helped bring contraception to Massachusetts

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jun 10, 2011

In 1966, Massachusetts became the last state in the US to legalize the sale of contraceptives. When the state legislative voted to repeal the law prohibiting their sale, the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts celebrated—and said that the victory was due to the cooperation of the Boston Catholic archdiocese.

Legislation calling for an end to the ban on contraceptive sales was originally introduced in 1965 by a young legislator named Michael Dukakis—who would eventually become Governor of Massachusetts, and the Democratic candidate for the US presidency in 1988. When the bill finally passed, a year later, Dukakis too said that the Archdiocese of Boston was responsible.

Is it really possible that a Catholic archdiocese was instrumental in promoting legislation that allowed for the acceptance of contraception? That is the thrust of an an astonishing article published in Boston College Magazine.

In my book The Faithful Departed, I wrote that Cardinal Cushing was the first prominent American Catholic to advance the now-familiar argument that it is morally permissible to vote for acceptance of a practice that the Church regards as gravely immoral. Today, that “personally opposed, but…” argument is regularly invoked by supporters of legal abortion. But in the 1960s, it was used by Cardinal Cushing to justify acceptance of legal contraception.

In 1965, as the state legislature discussed the repeal of the contraceptive ban, Cardinal Cushing said that he personally opposed the use of contraceptives. But he added, significantly: “I am also convinced that I should not impose my position—moral beliefs or religious beliefs—on those of other faiths.” To legislators weighing the merits of the bill, he said: “If your constituents want this legislation, vote for it.”

Thus did the leader of Boston’s Church signal an end to any active Catholic opposition to legalized sale of contraceptives. But the Boston College Magazine article reveals that the archdiocese had begun quietly planning for a change in the law even before Dukakis introduced his formal bid for repeal.

In 1963, the article reports, Cardinal Cushing was a guest on a radio call-in show. One caller asked the cardinal about his stance on the contraceptive ban, and he replied: “I have no right to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do.”

At the time of that broadcast, listeners in the Boston area did not know the identity of the woman who called in with the question that drew that response. But now, thanks to Boston College Magazine, we know that it was Hazel Sagoff, the executive director of Planned Parenthood. There is reason to believe that both Sagoff’s call and the cardinal’s response had been arranged in advance. Prior to the show, Sagoff had been conferring with Msgr. Francis Lally, the editor of the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, and a trusted adviser to Cardinal Cushing. Sagoff had said that a bid to repeal the contraceptive ban was doomed to fail, unless legislators were confident that the cardinal would not fight the measure. Msgr. Lally had indicated that he favored an end to the ban—although he hoped that the courts would settle the issue, making legislative action unnecessary.

Thus in the early 1960s, Planned Parenthood was coordinating plans with the Boston archdiocese to ease the way toward legal acceptance of contraception. When Dukakis introduced the repeal bid in 1965, the Catholic journalists at the Pilot received a memo instructing them not to comment on the legislation, “lest we stir up trouble with the Planned Parenthood people who have also pledged their ‘cooperation by silence.’”

In 1965, despite the acquiescence of the archdiocesan leadership, the repeal effort failed. In the lower house of the state legislature, lay Catholic politicians held the line against contraception, and the measure lost by a margin of 119 to 97.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Governor John Volpe had set up a special commission to study the birth-control issue. Among the 21 members of that commission were 3 who had close ties with Cardinal Cushing: Msgr. Lally, the editor of the Pilot; Father James O’Donoghue, a moral-theology teacher at the archdiocesan seminary; and Henry Leen, the cardinal’s lawyer. All three favored an end to the ban. Lest there be any lingering doubts as to where he stood on the issue, Cardinal Cushing himself wrote to the commission in 1966, saying that Catholics “do not seek to impose by law their moral view on other members of society.”

In 1966, when the repeal came up again before the state House of Representatives, it passed by a vote of 130-80. Within a few weeks, Planned Parenthood was welcoming the legal distribution of contraceptives in Massachusetts, and praising the Boston archdiocese for helping to make it possible.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Jun. 11, 2011 6:51 PM ET USA

    I read the article a couple of weeks ago. Indeed, the premise is astonishing. I agree with just about all of the comments here. However, I wonder: Is the narrative proposed by the author actually TRUE? The principles of the narrative - Cushing, Sagoff, and Lally - are long deceased, and they are unable to confirm or deny events. Personally, I often take anything coming out of Boston College that doesn't have the name "Peter Kreeft" on it with a big grain of salt. And I'm a B.C. graduate.

  • Posted by: impossible - Jun. 11, 2011 12:47 PM ET USA

    Was Cushing the source for JFK’s adoption of dualism, not only as a presidential candidate but also as a philandering Catholic married man? JFK and Ted conveniently placed their Catholic Faith in a lock box so it would not interfere with their lives. Many bishops apparently have the same attitude, the prime evidence being their quadrennial apologetic for pro-abortion Catholics wanting weasel-worded loopholes to vote for “progressive” socialistic pro-abortion candidates. Phil, please preempt USCCB’s next “Faithful Citizenship.”

  • Posted by: bsp1022 - Jun. 11, 2011 12:24 PM ET USA

    Humanae Vitae [Paul VI_'68]-the voice of one, crying in the desert. Best read of '68 & 2011. Read it. The pen-ultimate Black Swan [Prophetic] Encyclical of it's age and our own. Sorry, no whining from Catholics about being ill-served by Bishops. We were all warned and could have [should have] known the outcome, but WE wanted it in large numbers. Ask your confessor. What now, reality has arrived for marriage, abortion [et al] and we are not pleased? Really??? [google: Black Swan Events for def'n]

  • Posted by: - Jun. 11, 2011 12:00 PM ET USA

    The "personally opposed, but..." argument is at least as old as Pontius Pilate who was personally opposed the Christ's crucifixion but did not want to impose his views on the Sanhedrin.

  • Posted by: - Jun. 11, 2011 8:01 AM ET USA

    The historical footnote to Phil’s informative article, of course, is that once contraceptives had been legalized, the door to abortion opened wide and Planned Parenthood went on to become the supreme provider of them. Would Cardinal Cushing have approved of this? Pope Paul VI, author of Humanae Vitae, clearly understood the connection between contraception and abortion. If more of our religious leaders understood likewise, do you suppose they might begin to occasionally preach about it?

  • Posted by: DrJazz - Jun. 11, 2011 7:59 AM ET USA

    Phil, you've got to stop publishing these blockbuster articles on Fridays at 6pm. It's a great article; I just hope it gets the readership it deserves. What a shame that the Cushing and the Catholic power bloc were so willing to eviscerate moral principles from the law. The generations born after 1960 have wandered in the wilderness for a long time in part because of them, and many seem permanently lost to the faith.

  • Posted by: mseymour7814 - Jun. 11, 2011 7:47 AM ET USA

    This position by Cardinal Cushing, a great admirer of the Kennedys, is not a major surprise. Ted Kennedy used this point of view to simultaneously receive the sacraments and justify his voting on issues in opposition to the Church's teaching.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Jun. 10, 2011 10:41 PM ET USA

    Wow! Absolutely incredible. Amazing that no one had the presence of mind to say to His not-so-Eminence, "Excuse me, but does that also apply to the imposition of prohibitions on adultery, theft and murder since those are moral views as well?"

  • Posted by: - Jun. 10, 2011 10:37 PM ET USA

    “I have no right to impose my thinking, which is rooted in religious thought, on those who do not think as I do.” Ouch. The opposing side doesn't appear to have held many (or any) compunctions against imposing their values.

  • Posted by: timothy.op - Jun. 10, 2011 9:59 PM ET USA

    It is inconceivable that the Cardinal was unfamiliar with the concept of natural law, yet he spoke in the quotes above as one who had never heard of it! What accounts for this?

  • Posted by: garcial7217 - Jun. 10, 2011 6:42 PM ET USA

    sigh. Oh how generations of American Catholics have been cheated by sinful shepherds...